Of all the trappings of Old World Society
that I regret have vanished, such as the Friendly Helpful Gas Station attendant
and the Drugstore Soda Fountain
, the one that I find myself yearning for most often is the Barber
's straight razor shave
. I was fortunate enough to grow up in upper Manhattan
, New York City
; for there on Broadway was an establishment named the Broadway Barber Shop
. It was owned and operated by a Mr. Kay Demetriou
, who had been a barber there for, (adopts Obi-wan
voice) oh, a long time...a long time. He was an always-cheerful man, who had ten-year-old ragged Playboy
s mixed with Archie comics
on the table near the waiting chairs. Although there were six barber chairs in the shop (remnants of glory days
past) he only used one, or occasionally two.
Although Mr. Kay gave fairly utilitarian haircuts, he was the master of the straight razor shave. Now, this is a phenomenon that many flatly do not understand. Why let another human scrape your throat with a wickedly sharp piece of metal? It flies against all survival instincts. Humans will instinctively protect their most vulnerable parts when endangered; the instinct to hunch one's head down against the torso is specifically evolved to protect the throat. However, as civilized men, we have learned to submit, for the results are wonderful.
Probably the best part is that you don't even need to be cleanshaven - a neck shave is just as wonderful and effective! I presently have a beard, but would love to find someone in Boston who can give a good straight razor shave. In any case, I digress. The wonders begin when Mr. Kay briskly dusts off the chair and ushers you into it with effusive Greek welcome. As you sit, he lowers the back of the seat so that you are almost entirely supine. When you are comfortable (he'll check!) he goes to the autoclave and removes a moist towel. This towel he unfolds, waves three times precisely to cool it, and then lays it over your face and neck.
Ahhhhhhh. He'll always ask if it's too hot. The answer is always "Oh, no." It's a wonderful sensation, really, as your pores open up and your face fur starts to soften; good for the sinuses, too! Although it's always just on the edge of hurting, it always swiftly fades to simply steaming hot, just at the edge of your face's tolerance.
The Machine is one I wish I had at home. It's made of that wonderful retro chrome like every other implement in the shop. It has a small spigot and a button; when the button is pressed, freshly-whipped hot shaving cream is dispensed. Aaah. Mr. Kay will carefully lather your neck (and if necessary, chin), massaging the shaving cream into your skin with expert strong fingers. After he's done, he will wipe his hands and ask if you're ready. When he gets an affirmative reply, he will take out the razor and sharpen it (usually unnecessarily!) on the stone. When he's satisfied, he'll strop it with leather ten or twelve times just to be sure. Then he'll seat himself just behind you, and place one finger on your chin to ensure your head is tilted back.
Then the shave. It's a fascinating sensation; the razor is usually body temperature, so there's no cold shock; he keeps it slightly cool to avoid razorburn. As the razor slides over your skin, you can feel a sharpness, like you'd just run your fingers across the edge of a sharp pocketknife; but that's it. Sometimes you can hear, more than feel, the hair being cut in a crackle as the razor slides across your skin.
Mr. Kay will take his time. He'll work carefully, yet quickly enough that the shaving cream doesn't have time to cool uncomfortably. If that means relathering, so be it. Eventually, he will have completed his task, and your skin - new to the outside air, usually - will quiver slightly, almost in anticipation. When he has finished, he'll moisten his towel and wipe your face clean quickly, with the finicky care and feather touch that never failed to send a shiver down my spine. Then he'll get up, and come back to your chair; standing behind you again, he'll clasp your cheeks in his hands, and the Bay Rum that he's gone back to get will sink quickly into your pores. There will be a brief, five-second wash of stinging as your new flesh absorbs the antiseptic cologne. Then he'll massage the scent into your skin, working all the places he shaved, in order to ensure no irritation or infection occur (not like it would, with his tools and shop spotless). Finally, he'll slowly raise the chair, and you'll run your hands over your neck and/or chin - and even if, like me, you have an ingrown beard with bumps and irritations, it will be as smooth as a sleeping baby's ass, and you'll have to stop yourself from stroking it as you grin widely, and pay Mr. Kay before striding out the door into the suddenly-brighter world.
Note: Mr. Kay is a real person. He passed away in 1998, after closing his shop (which was on 103rd and Broadway) for good in 1996, at the age of 75. His shop, however, is still here; it's installed in the New York Historical Society as a landmark, just as he left it. In his time, Mr. Kay shaved the Marx brothers (they grew up in the neighborhood), Humphrey Bogart (ditto) and Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was president of Columbia University up the street from 1948 to 1953. I miss Mr. Kay; I know, however, he passed away peacefully content, after serving New Yorkers as his friends for more than fifty years. Such a life I can only hope to come close to equaling. God Bless, Mr. Kay.